You may have heard that the second night, the Perestroika portion of the Mike Nichols television version of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (Part 1, Sunday, December 7; 8 to 11 p.m.; Part 2, Sunday, December 14; 8 to 11 p.m.; HBO), slogs some and also speechifies. That Al Pacino, as a Roy Cohn who knows he is going to die despite the secret stash of AZT in his private hospital fridge, finally (as usual) flips his histrionic lid. That when we get to heaven, which looks a little like the Shrine of the Bab in the Baha’i Gardens in Haifa after an artillery bombardment, we won’t know what to make of the sudden switch from magic realism to The Wizard of Oz.
Or so I was advised by wise old heads after I raved about Millennium Approaches, the first three hours of Kushner’s operatic lamentation, a sort of choral response to Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, during which the playwright took more chances than Eugene O’Neill. (“Children of the new morning, criminal minds,” says motormouth Louis Ironson: “Selfish and greedy and loveless and blind.”) Wise old heads like to bring you down—it’s the senior-citizen equivalent of way-cool. I am happy to report that the wise old heads were wrong. The speeches are poems. Pacino rages, but no more than Lear. The young folks are brilliant throughout. Perestroika isn’t lesser, merely different. And whether you watch Angels on two nights one week apart, every night of the week an hour at a time, or in a marathon session with designer water and beef jerky, it’s still not only the best television of the year but, hands down, the best movie, period.
To be sure, you must bring to the occasion the same stamina and alert intelligence you’d bring to a serious novel. Kushner may make poetry (“his desire made prayer, his prayer made an angel, the angel was real”) and he may make jokes (“like a sex scene in an Ayn Rand novel”), but he is also making points: There’s no stopping the fast-forward of modernity, no turning back, and no one to wait for. If Angels valorizes gay men who decided not to die secret deaths anymore in the Ronald Reagan plague years, it is as well an exalted dialectic of longing and dreaming, of the past we can’t get back to and the future we can’t see—not to mention a gloss on Pascal: Maybe He is lost, maybe abducted, or maybe absconded, but God is certainly gone. And should He happen to return, well then, as Prior Walter instructs the Angel, “Sue the bastard!”
Prior, played by a Justin Kirk who skins himself before our eyes till the core glows like some heavy-water meltdown, is dying of aids, which is why the Angel keeps crashing through his ceiling. Louis, played by a Ben Shenkman who will drive us equally crazy with his failures of character, his seizures of remorse, his excesses of opinion, and his neurotic frenzy, is the lover who couldn’t stand to watch Prior die and so abandoned him. Joe Pitt, played by Patrick Wilson as if good looks are a curse and the Latter-Day Saints are monkeys on his back, is a law clerk from Utah and Roy Cohn’s errand boy at the federal courthouse, who will meet Louis rambling in Central Park because he is avoiding his wife, Harper (Mary-Louise Parker), back in their Brooklyn apartment.
Parker would be a revelation if we hadn’t already known from Proof that she is as abundantly talented as any actor working today onstage or onscreen. Instead of love, what her shoeless Harper gets from buttoned-up husband Joe is a craving for Valium and a nervous breakdown. But when she finally leaves him, she also gets one of Tony Kushner’s best images. Looking out a jet-plane window, she sees souls rising from the earth—“like skydivers in reverse.” Whereas her mother-in-law, Hannah, a Meryl Streep who’s come all the way from Salt Lake City to shove her son back into his Mormon closet, gets a passionate kiss from Emma Thompson.
Have I explained that Emma is the Angel? She complicates matters by being beautiful, adding a lewd twist to a naked midair sex scene with Walter, during which both seem to burst into flames. Then she kisses Streep. Angels, we’re told, are hermaphroditic, with as many as eight vaginas. But Emma is also flustered, fearful of change even if she is its agent, following orders from on high that may be wishful thinking, out-of-date, or too hastily translated from the Aramaic. And her wings seem mainly to encumber. When, at Meryl’s suggestion, Walter wrestles the Angel Emma, their grappling is more slapstick than smackdown.
And Streep! Besides playing the Mother of All Mormons, she impersonates both a rabbi who speaks of the immigration of the Jews from the Old World to the New as if he’d personally scooted them along and an Ethel Rosenberg returned from the electric chair just to visit Roy Cohn’s deathbed. Ethel, who has already made guest appearances in Robert Coover’s The Public Burning, E. L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel, and Mary Gordon’s Shadow Man, has been made up like a Kabuki doll. She wants mostly to gloat, but she eventually sings the Kaddish prayer for Roy, in one of the surpassingly tender scenes that makes Perestroika such a night of grace.